Ford Proves It Can Build A Compact With A Pulse

2012 Ford Focus - Click above for high-res image gallery

We should no longer be surprised by the notion of a compact car with big-sedan features and eye-popping fuel economy. New creations like the Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze have gone about making the compact segment one of the most hotly contested arenas in the market, rankling the chains of long-time fighters like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla in the process. But while the Cruze and Elantra have proven that big content can come in small packages with smaller price tags, there's a growing sense that the fun-to-fling small car may be on its way out in favor of commuters that have inherited the soft-riding genes of their bigger brethren.

In a way, the change was all but inevitable. Whereas the compact segment once served up a cornucopia of rides that were low on power but big on handling, the market has proven that above all else, buyers in this neck of the woods want value. In an effort to pinch every last copper cent, both Hyundai and Chevrolet have scrapped the independent rear suspension in their respective compacts in favor of the considerably cheaper torsion-beam design.

So when Ford announced that American buyers would finally be able to get their hands on the global Focus, our ears perked up. The last Euro-Focus had built a reputation for being a smart handler, and if this latest version could make it across the pond without becoming too watered down in the process, compact buyers would once again have a vehicle that's as fun to drive as it is responsible to own. Now we get to find out if Ford pulled it off.

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Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL

From the exterior, there's no mistaking the 2012 Ford Focus for a flat-line commuter. The FoMoCo designers graced both the four-door and five-door body styles with a menacing fascia that makes use of massive faux air-inlets on either side of the main grille, and the blacked-out treatment is plenty sharp in the flesh. That's especially true when the Focus wears the optional 17-inch painted alloy wheels of our sedan tester. Ford is planning to offer a whopping total of 11 different wheel variants, with 18-inch, multi-spoke rollers topping the charts.

Wrapped headlights carry your eye around the side of the Focus, where a sloping shoulder line and subtle strake help give the car a sense of movement in four-door guise. Out back, the sedan wears a remarkably short trunk deck, though the wrapped tail lamps go a long way toward helping everything feel cohesive. We couldn't really drum up a complaint with the appearance of the sedan, but the five-door variant is far and above the looker in our book.

While the hatch makes use of the same front bodywork as its four-door kin, the five-door presents a much more sorted rear. Tricks like a fuel door that's integrated into the tail lamp design and an attractive roof spoiler go a long way toward making the Focus hatch one of the more creatively styled compacts.

2012 Ford Focus front view2012 Ford Focus rear view2012 Ford Focus side view2012 Ford Focus front view2012 Ford Focus rear view2012 Ford Focus side view

Inside, the Focus offers up an interior that, while nice, isn't going to redefine what buyers have come to expect from small cars in America. Base trim delivers comfortable cloth seats with acceptable bolstering, though the two-tone grey on black cloth of our sedan tester was more than a little cringe-worthy. The good news is that the higher you climb on the option sheet, the better those thrones become. Ford does offer handsome leather buckets with contrasting stitching if you can't stomach the thought of parking your keester on the low-rent seats.

Seating material aside, the Focus uses stylish, easy-to-read gauges that are supplemented by a small LCD screen nestled between the tachometer and the speedometer. The screen can be set up to display everything from fuel economy to your trip meter, average speed and a host of other information. Handy controls on the steering wheel make the screen easy to use and easier to set up, though we wouldn't recommend flipping through the categories while on the road.

The center stack on the Focus offers more buttons than you can shake a stick at, and at least half of them are tangled up in the same number pad found on the Fiesta. Lower trim levels are stuck with HVAC controls that feel right at home in this segment, though buyers opting up for the Titanium trim level are rewarded with more upscale kit.

2012 Ford Focus interior2012 Ford Focus front seats2012 Ford Focus gauges2012 Ford Focus multimedia system

For now, the 2012 Focus is only available with one engine option – a 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated direct-injection gasoline engine with 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. Buyers can have the mill bolted to either a five-speed manual or dual-clutch transmission, and while the EPA hasn't quite wrapped up testing on either configuration, Ford tells us that we can expect at least one variant to eclipse the 40 mpg barrier. That means that unlike the Hyundai Elantra, which manages to hit 40 mpg no matter the trim, the Focus will only be able to pull off the fuel-economy stunt with a special package just like the Chevrolet Cruze Eco.

Still, that doesn't mean the standard Focus is a slouch at the pump. Ford packed in plenty of learned lessons from its successful EcoBoost program into the 2.0-liter, including a specially-ported intake manifold to increase air flow and twin variable valve timing. Even with plenty of hammering during our time in the cockpit, we saw around 32 mpg in mixed driving, and we're curious to see exactly what the vehicle can return under more sane conditions. Considering that Ford is shooting for an 18-percent increase in fuel economy compared to the 2011 model, the standard 2012 Focus should land somewhere around 30 mpg city and hit high 30s on the highway.

2012 Ford Focus engine

While it's a little disappointing to hear that not every Focus model will be able to return 40 mpg highway, we're bolstered by the handling that Ford has managed to bake into its new compact. The Blue Oval made use of a MacPherson strut set up in the front with a hefty 23.5-millimeter stabilizer bar, and out back, the Focus delivers a multi-link independent rear with a 19-millimeter bar. The result is one of the most well-planted compacts in the segment. Really lean on the Focus and it will serve up sharp turn-in with very little understeer, and the five-speed manual transmission is perfect for banging your way through the gears. With one fell swoop, the 2012 Focus has managed to knock both the Honda Civic and the Mazda3 off their fun-to-drive thrones.

Unfortunately, if you want the Titanium Handling Package package that throws in 18-inch wheels, stickier summer tires, revised dampers, springs and sway bars, you're stuck opting up to the Titanium package. If we were looking for a quality commuter that's fun to sling down our favorite set of twisties, we'd opt for an SE with the five-speed manual and spend the money saved on a new set of tires.

2012 Ford Focus grille2012 Ford Focus headlight2012 Ford Focus wheel2012 Ford Focus taillight

At this point, you're probably thinking that a dual-clutch transmission makes perfect sense on a sport model. You'd be right, only Ford has programmed this cog box to handle shifts just like a standard automatic. While you can technically coax the transmission into a gear of your own choosing by clicking the tiny rocker button on top of the shift lever, gear swaps are slow and soft. If you're really looking to cover some ground with a vengeance, you're better off opting for the manual 'box.

That's not to say that the dual-clutch transmission is lackluster for fielding commuting duty by any means. On the street, the shifts are perfectly smooth, and while the transmission tends to hold gears a bit longer before down shifting than we'd like, the truth is that this piece is a huge improvement over the old automatic.

2012 Ford Focus shifter2012 Ford Focus shifter

Ford has priced the 2012 Focus Sedan starting at $16,995 in S trim, though opting up to the five-door in SE guise will set you back $18,790. If your pockets are a little deeper and you like the look of the more polished interior, Titanium trim will go for $22,995 for the sedan and $23,490 for the hatch. That base price puts the Focus at over $1,100 more than the 2010 Honda Civic sedan, though with more horsepower and better theoretical fuel economy, buyers will get what they pay for with the newest addition to the FoMoCo family.

Ford has made it clear that it doesn't intend to be left out of the new wave of high-quality compact vehicles, and the 2012 Focus manages to bring a level of sophistication, comfort and handling that we've never seen from the automaker's efforts in this segment. The Focus has finally grown into a genuine top pick in a field that's already packed with strong contenders. Our only complaint is that we have to wait a full year before the high-horsepower Focus ST model finds its way to the streets. Consider yourselves warned, Civic Si and MazdaSpeed3.

2012 Ford Focus rear 3/4 view

The bottom line is that the 2012 Ford Focus is a compact car with a pulse. With its more youthful exterior and sharper handling compared to either the 2011 Hyundai Elantra or 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, the Focus is perfect for buyers who want more than transportation from their vehicles. And with available goodies like MyFord Touch and a hatchback body style, the Focus also delivers a little extra usability than either of those offerings. If you're willing to give up a few miles per gallon for a few extra giggles per apex, it's hard to do better than the Focus.

Photos copyright ©2011 Zach Bowman / AOL

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